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A sweet controversy: Sucralose, safety, and shifting consumer preferences

2024-02-26 Ingredients Network

Tag: plant-based


Recent research has raised questions about sucralose, a widely-used artificial sugar-free sweetener that provides the same sweetness as traditional sugar, minus the calories. While it sounds like a win-win scenario for health-conscious consumers, concerns about sucralose’s safety have emerged, prompting a closer look at alternatives. As consumer preferences shift towards natural ingredients, the food and beverage industry face evolving challenges.

New study suggests sucralose may impact DNA

Sucralose, a widely recognised artificial sweetener approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1999 and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) in 2004, commonly known by the brand name Splenda, faces scrutiny following a recent study suggesting that sucralose-6-acetate (S6A), a component of sucralose, may harm DNA.

A study published by the University of North Carolina in the Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health in May 2023, conducted in vitro experiments, exposing human blood cells to S6A, a structural analogue of sucralose. The findings indicated DNA damage within the cells. Dr. Susan Schiffman, one of the lead authors, stated in a press release, "Our work establishes that sucralose-6-acetate is genotoxic […] we also detected trace amounts of sucralose-6-acetate in off-the-shelf sucralose, even before consumption and metabolism."

This research builds on other scientific investigations since regulatory approval in 1999, contradicting the initial safety findings of sucralose. The University of North Carolina team has since called for a safety and regulatory review of sucralose.

Navigating the safety of sucralose

In light of the study, global regulatory agencies have not raised safety concerns regarding sucralose consumption at appropriate doses. The World Health Organization issued 2023 guidelines advising against the use of sucralose for weight loss. These recommendations do not pertain to the overall safety of sucralose when consumed within established limits.

Tate & Lyle issued a swift press release under the Splenda brand name in the wake of the study defend the safety of sucralose, emphasising the need for a comprehensive analysis. It expressed concerns about the studys relevance to its products, stating: “Recent news reports covering this study have alleged or implied that the study indicates Splenda Brand Sweeteners caused poor health effects. That is false, […]

“The study focuses on the chemical compound S6A, which is not used in Splenda Brand products. It is also distinctly different from the chemical compound sucralose….”

In July 2023, an article in VeryWell quoted Dr. Rafael Urrialde cde Andrés, PhD, of Complutense University of Madrid’s Department of Genetics, Physiology, and Microbiology: "S6A is a metabolite of sucralose, meaning it is a substance produced during metabolism. In essence, consuming S6A is not equivalent to consuming Splenda.” The article also noted that consuming about 1,800 diet soda cans is needed to reach the lowest damage threshold for S6A.

Shifting trends

Controversies surrounding artificial, sugar-free sweeteners have polarised many views around the potential negative health impacts of these products. What we are now seeing is an emerging consumer demand for products both low in sugar and free from artificial ingredients.

While the business outlook for artificially sweetened food and beverages appears promising, with Fortune Business Insights projecting the global sugar substitutes (plant-based substances/artificial sweetener) market to expand from $7.91 billion in 2022 to $12.86 bn by 2029, there is a simultaneous surge in consumer demand for products that prioritise natural ingredients.

In a September 2022 article exploring food and beverage trends and insights, by Tate & Lyle, drawing on 2020 research across 14 countries and Mintel GNPD Europe data, researchers found that in 2020 94% of global consumers had reduced their sugary drink consumption in the past year. The article also noted that 84% of consumers prioritise reading ingredient labels and prefer beverages free from artificial additives, with "free from additives" claims gaining popularity.

Emerging trends - plant-based sweeteners

Many in the food and beverage industry have been quick to pick up on these shifting consumer demands for natural sweetness and reduced sugar content.

Research by Mintel on sugar reduction, cited by Tate & Lyle, analysed global food and drink product launches between 2016 to 2020, revealing a notable trend: the growing prominence of alternative sweeteners. The results demonstrated the rise of products launched with monk fruit and stevia – both of which are plant-based sweeteners.

In June 2023, Mintel’s GNDP data spotlighted monk fruit’s ascent as a sought-after sweetener. Its exceptional sweetness, usually 200 to 300 times higher than table sugar, has propelled its use globally, particularly in mainland China and the US. The data pointed out that consumer preferences for reduced-sugar options with a natural image are driving the promising outlook for monk fruit sweeteners. These products are increasingly inclined to align with current trends, promoting themselves as natural and plant-based.

These innovations, along with others in the field, while necessitating further research and development, underscore an exciting trend in the food and beverage industry towards natural sweeteners. And if indications are correct, consumer demand for these products is on a steady upward trajectory.


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